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Massachusetts Mills, Lowell

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Renovation of mills enters final phase

Last tenant challenging legality of special permit

By Alexander Reid, Globe Staff | July 11, 2004

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Images from MassMills.net

Having won the latest round in a difficult legal struggle, a Braintree-based development company is planning to start work as early as next month on the final phase of the large scale renovation of Massachusetts Mills on Bridge Street, one of Lowell's largest textile mill buildings.

Michael J. Mullins, director of development for Joseph R. Mullins Co., said his firm has set a timetable for work to begin by late summer or early fall.

"We have the approvals and we're ready to go, now that we have the legal issues cleared up," said Mullins. "We're excited. It's the last phase and we're finally able to get it started."

Mullins said that the company will proceed on Phase III even though a lawyer for a woman who filed a complaint against the project has said he will probably go to court to try to stop it.

Phase III is the continuation of a development project that began in the late 1980s as one of the first mill renovation projects in downtown Lowell. The company built 160 apartments in the first phase and 122 in the second. The one- to three-bedroom units were completed in 1989. The next phase calls for 155 market-rate, luxury apartments. The Mullins company owns almost the entire property.

But the $28 million project was almost derailed when an abutter filed a complaint in May alleging that the special permit for Phase III -- granted to Mullins in 2003 -- was illegal. The abutter, Judith Flood, owns a condominium inside a building that sits on the Mass Mills property. It is the only condo in the building not owned by the Mullins company.

Flood had claimed that she was not notified about the August 2003 meeting in which the Zoning Board of Appeals granted the permit. Her lawyer, Philip Nyman, lodged a complaint May 25 with the Appeals Board when Mullins appeared again before the board to seek a modification of the special permit granted in 2003

Upon hearing the complaint, the ZBA decided to delay its decision until the city's law department could study the matter and issue a decision.

Nyman argued that Flood never received notice of the hearing.

"My client was not properly notified," said Nyman. "The community at large was not properly notified. It was not done in accordance with the law, which requires newspaper ads two consecutive weeks before the hearing takes place."

Mullins said his company had problems notifying all of the abutters. "Our attorneys went to the tax assessors office to get a list of abutters and they weren't on the list of people we notified," he said. He said his company has been negotiating with Flood and her husband, James, a zoning attorney, since 2001 to buy their property "so they knew what we were planning,"

Lowell City Solicitor Christine P. O'Connor decided that the Appeals Board should be allowed to move forward with its decision on the modified special permit. While she acknowledged that Judith Flood was not notified, she pointed out that James Flood was present at the August 2003 meeting and aware that the permit was being granted.

In her decision, O'Connor wrote, "A party in interest may waive mailed notice by appearing at a public meeting without objecting to the sufficiency of the notice."

O'Connor also wrote that Flood did not file her appeal of the Appeals Board decision within the 90-day period allowed for question on the legal notification. The board approved the modified special permit following O'Connor's decision.

Nyman, who spoke on behalf of his client, said they were planning an appeal. "We have a few options," he said. "It could be Land Court, Superior Court or federal court. This is a serious technical issue. This is not over."

Despite the possibility of an appeal, Mullins said his company will move ahead with plans for Mass Mills III. "I'm glad this was resolved in a timely manner," he said. "This is an important development for the city."

Indeed, city officials echoed Mullins's feelings. George Proakis, the administrator for Lowell's Planning Board, said the units planned for Mass Mills III represent a sizable chunk of new housing stock in downtown Lowell. "It's part of the long-term plan to bring more housing to downtown. By the end of the year, there will be projects totaling 700 units of housing from apartments to condos, much of it in the mills."

City Councilor Richard Howe said the completion of Mass Mills would signal a milestone for the city. "He [Michael Mullins] invested in those buildings back when no one else would," Howe said. " He made a contribution. It would have been unfortunate if he could not move forward."

From The Boston Globe

More online: MassMills.net

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